Graham Handscomb and John MacBeath put forward the case for teacher enquiry and benefits of research engagement for professional learning

Why should teachers use and engage in research activity? With all the workforce pressures on teachers, is such involvement an indulgence they can ill afford?  In fact, there is an increasing body of literature and school practice which indicates quite the contrary. Rather than being an effete activity which diverts energies from the school’s core business, school-based enquiry and research are now being seen to make an important contribution to self-evaluation, improvement and the professional learning of staff. Engagement with research encourages practitioners to question, explore and develop their practice, making a significant contribution to improved teaching and learning. In fostering a school culture where teachers examine and critique their own practice, research activity can be an important and integral element of continuing professional development.

This article explores the powerful contribution teacher enquiry can make to professional learning. We illustrate how this is particularly pertinent in the context of the modern continuing professional development (CPD) agenda and in relation to the latest government thinking. Then we look at the relationship between the teacher researcher and what good teachers do anyway, arguing that developing teachers as enquirers echoes the aspirations we have for pupils’ learning. An account is given of the work of Essex local authority’s Forum for Learning and Research Enquiry (FLARE), particularly on the characteristics of ‘the research engaged school’ which has now been developed into a national investigation. Finally, we set out some challenges and recommendations to be addressed if teacher enquiry is to fulfil its potential at the heart of CPD practice within schools.

School-based research: its time has come
Ever since the publication of the government’s Strategy for Professional Development (2001), with the shift of focus to school-based CPD, the emphasis has been on learning together, learning from the best, learning from what works. This has been given further endorsement in the recent statement about the DCSF’s commitment to building schools’ capacity for effective professional development. The modern professional development agenda therefore has the following features:

  • tapping school expertise, not importing it
  • developing, seeking out and sharing practice
  • developing communities of practice and enquiry within and beyond the school
  • LAs and others to be part of this partnership working.

There has been a similar shift towards school owned evaluation. The spotlight is now on how the school maintains and evaluates itself and develops a culture of ‘self-inspection’. This has a number of implications.  It has led to concentrating on processes within the school, with researchers’ attention being drawn much more ‘to internal characteristics of schools, to departments and classrooms as the focal point for what differentiates success and failure’ (MacBeath and McGlynn, 2002). While there is evidence that schools are becoming more confident, self-critical and skilled in evaluation, it still tends to remains rooted in an ‘inspection’ model, that is as an event rather than as an ongoing process, more audit than research, more observance of protocol than open-ended inquiry.

The teacher as enquirer
This climate of school-focused professional development and school self-evaluation provides the conditions in which teacher enquiry and research can flourish and make a significant contribution. Nevertheless, teacher involvement in research is at best patchy, with many, perhaps even a majority, remaining to be persuaded of its value. Many teachers who regularly reflect on their practice are not conscious of formally engaging in activity that is labelled research and some teachers do undertake specific research projects.

For the majority of teachers, however, the notion of being a teacher researcher is unhelpful and may be off-putting. A more useful term, which indicates the skills that are part of good teaching, is the teacher, as enquirer, that is keen to reflect upon and critique his or her own practice. Such teachers make good use of research and evidence to stimulate new ways of thinking, trying out new ideas, then systematically evaluating the impact of any subsequent change in practice.

Systematic enquiry made public
In the debate within the British educational research community, there has been much questioning about whether school-based enquiry counts as ‘research’ and whether it has value. Teachers have long been involved in examining their practice in order to make further improvements, but when may such activity be described as ‘research’? What is the relationship between large-scale research conducted by a university department and a piece of evidence-informed practice carried out by a teacher within her classroom? And how is such evidence-informed practice different from what good teachers do anyway in refining and honing their craft in day-to-day lesson preparation and evaluation?

One view is that evidence-informed practice typically involves the individual teacher reflecting on her own classroom practice, sharing this with colleagues in a climate which promotes challenging discourse – in contrast ‘research’ tends to be seen as involving larger scale, more systematic enquiry. Another view is that these two characterisations are not different in kind but rather two ends of a continuum of practice in which ‘evidenced-informed practice’ merges into ‘research’.

We find this a rather unproductive debate, and we are uncomfortable with too sharp a distinction between teacher enquiry/reflection and research. Accepting Stenhouse’s (1981) definition of research as ‘systematic enquiry, made public’ allows us to encompass both the individual teacher focusing on one feature of her craft, as well as large-scale projects involving many schools. The important common element to both is an investigative process undertaken with rigour, concern for evidence and communicated to others.

Schools, teachers, pupils – what’s in it for me?
So why should schools be interested in conducting research? The answer is to be found in schools and classrooms where teachers, singly or collaboratively, have engaged in some form of research and found it to be a highly satisfying and energising professional learning activity. For teachers who have engaged in researching their own school and classrooms it has not only brought new insights, new levels of understanding and new challenges, but has enhanced the quality of teaching and learning at the same time. (Handscomb and MacBeath, 2003)

The term ‘research’ can have unfortunate connotations – of white-coated boffins in laboratories, and unread impenetrable articles in esoteric journals.  The experience of teachers working in schools that are committed to research is in sharp contrast to this stereotype. In these schools, research covers a wide gamut of activities, rooted in the day-to-day life of the classroom and the ongoing business of the school and its relationships with its community. Just as teachers encourage their pupils to engage in inquiry, systematically and with a developing understanding of what constitutes ‘evidence’, so teachers observe the same principles. It is about turning intuitive and spontaneous judgements into more systematic investigations, and it starts with the everyday questions that teachers ask themselves:

  • Why do children behave the way they do?
  • Why do some children seem unable to learn?
  • Why is my teaching sometimes effective and at other times not?
  • What would make for a happier, more productive classroom?

Why engage in research?

Teachers researching their own schools and classroom have found it:

  • encourages practitioners to question, explore and develop their practice
  • to be a highly satisfying and energising professional activity
  • has become an integral part of continuing professional development
  • has brought new insights, new levels of understanding and new challenges
  • has enhanced the quality of learning and teaching.

Research: critical to schools’ success!
A number of people are now strongly advocating the holistic view that the critical enquiring approach to learning, which we foster in children, needs also to be reflected in the professional growth of teachers.

Seeking answers to the kind of practitioner questions listed above has always concerned teachers, but never before has it become so critical to a school’s survival, growth and success. The third millennium school is required to be self-evaluating, open to scrutiny, evidenced-based, data rich. But, as many commentators have suggested, schools are at the same time often ‘information poor’ (Elliot and Sammons, 2003). This is, in part, because teachers feel little ownership of data they are expected to use, questioning both its value and validity. It is nonetheless, high stakes, requiring ‘delivery’ rather than creation, ‘implementation’ rather than inquiry. Being kept busy undermines teachers’ confidence to convert what they know or believe into a form that provides robust counter-evidence. It weakens their ability to speak with conviction that is grounded in their own professional context and experience. The value of CPD, which fosters research engagement, contains the potential for an ‘enquiry’ outlook which empowers and re-professionalises teachers.

LA promotion of enquiry and research
It is important that school’s capacity and motivation for research engagement is supported through partnerships with key organisations. Many higher education institutions have forged productive relationships with schools and some have established research networks of schools such as Cantarnet, organised by Canterbury Christ Church University.

Some LAs are also encouraging schools to use research for school improvement. Essex LEA established its Forum for Learning and Research Enquiry (FLARE) in January, 2002. This mainly comprises serving teachers and headteachers and its remit includes:

  • developing an Essex research and development strategy
  • promoting the involvement of teachers and other school colleagues in using and conducting research
  • promoting research activity that has an impact on raising standards
  • providing advice and guidance on the use and dissemination of research and the commissioning of research.

FLARE has mapped research being undertaken in Essex, providing guidance on the nature of practitioner research and has run local and regional conferences.

The research engaged school
One of FLARE’s most recent developments is its work on the concept of ‘The research engaged school’. If a school were engaged with research, what would be its basic philosophy and would its commitment be reflected in the dimensions of school life? In its publication FLARE concludes:

‘The research engaged school is one in which teachers believe it is in their interest, and in the interest of their pupils, to be critical of received wisdom, to be sceptical of easy answers, to have a desire for evidence and to foster ‘aggressive curiosity’. It recognises that, at every level, there is research of some kind already ongoing, and finds ways of supporting this endeavour and making it more rigorous, transparent and of value, not only to the school itself but to a wider constituency.’ (Handscomb and MacBeath, 2003)

Building on what we know about teachers as researchers and professional enquirers, the forum has explored the features that might be typically found in a school that is ‘research engaged’. FLARE’s thinking is that, in such a school, research and enquiry is integral to its approach to teaching and learning. It is built into the school culture, fostering research and enquiry in collaborative groups within and beyond the school. Above all, what distinguishes a research engaged school is that such activity is at the very heart of the school, pervading its outlook, informing its systems and stimulating learning at every level.

FLARE took evidence from teachers currently engaged in research from higher education institutions and national organisations. Drawing on these accounts, a range of features were identified and grouped under the following broad headings:

  • The research engaged school has a ‘research rich’ pedagogy.
  • The research engaged school has a research orientation.
  • The research engaged school promotes research communities.
  • The research engaged school puts research at the heart of school policy and practice.

In its publication on this work, FLARE aimed to describe these dimensions in concise assessable language, each followed by a section headed ‘Implications for my school’. On the last dimension, the ‘implications’ took the form of a quick ‘health check’ set of questions by which schools could make an initial judgement about the relationship of research to the key business of the school.

Partnership and collaborative working are often key features of schools seeking to be research engaged. The support and expertise of higher education can help to galvanise development, and schools working together can provide a research community which provides peer critique and helps to sustain research activity over time.

An important feature of the research engaged school is using enquiry to empower children and young people – both in terms of their development as effective learners and also to increase their participation in school leadership and evaluation. Research engagement enables students to go beyond surveying the views of young people and participation in school councils. It can also ensure they are genuine co-enquirers in investigating and bringing about school change and improvement. See pages below for a case study of a secondary research-engaged school.

The following gives some glimpses of a secondary school that has put research engagement at the heart of the school so that it has had impact on student outcomes as well as being the driving force for staff and school development.

Whole-school approach
At this 11-18 school a decision was taken that being a research engaged school would be at the core of its identity. This meant that everyone – headteacher, staff and pupils – would be active enquirers. As well as using its own resources for research, the school has secured additional funding to support the school’s wide range of research engaged activity. The school thinking and development was also informed by the local authority’s pioneering framework on how to become a research engaged school.

The headteacher feels that the number of staff with research experience has reached a ‘tipping point’, with approximately 45 of the 60 teaching staff having completed a piece of action research. The school arranged for a professor from Cambridge University to meet with each of the 10 teacher-researchers for half an hour every term. She encourages teachers to relate their work to the wider evidence base. School staff can visit the university library to find research related to their field of study.

When completed, each piece of research is reported in a short written account in the school’s Learning Lessons research publication. These are made available to staff, parents and governors. A fee of £100 is given to any member of staff willing to write up a colleague’s research where the writer interviews the teacher-researcher and then produces a draft report of up to 1,000 words, focusing on the applications of the research to practice.

The school also exemplifies the research engaged school dimension of promoting research communities within and beyond the school. It spends a third of its Leading Edge budget on working with other schools and this has involved several research investigations, including a junior school project on the impact of parents continuing to read to their children and another investigating the use of diagnostic tests in maths. The school also arranges joint meetings with other research-engaged schools locally and further afield to share the findings of their action research.

Staff development through enquiry
All action research projects are designed with impact in mind. Staff work on an issue of their own choosing and implement new approaches to bring about improvements. Teachers find action research interesting and motivating. ‘It’s not just the research and how it affects your teaching; it’s also the fact that you are stretching your mind into an area other than your normal everyday teaching’ (head of technology). Teacher-researchers give 15-minute presentations about their projects at all whole-school training days and encourage as many of its newly qualified teaching staff as possible to sign up for an MEd programme at Cambridge University. The headteacher stresses that ‘research engagement has become an expectation: it has attracted staff to apply for posts at this school’.

Several teachers have used ideas from research by colleagues in other departments. In order to encourage this still further, the school has formed a working group aiming to increase collaboration and generate deeper, more transferable learning. Another working group has a remit to improve coaching and mentoring, including coaching in research skills.

Impact on students
Each research project is designed to have an impact on the lives and life chances of young people. For example, one head of department focused on helping students to improve their essays. The new approach included writing frames, coupled with coaching using online instant messaging. This enabled students to achieve better results in their history exams and to transfer their learning to other subjects. As one student said: ‘Before, I tended not to think so much about the wording of the question and would write everything I knew about the topic mentioned. Now, when I’m working on my answer I’ll read through the piece like I’m marking it myself with ways I could improve it.’

Similarly, a science teacher wanted to improve exam revision and asked students in Year 11 to identify effective revision strategies. He then introduced a range of techniques to make revision more targeted, active and collaborative. This included: encouraging peer tutoring; asking students to give immediate feedback on any difficulties they were experiencing with the material; and encouraging students to use a wide range of approaches to record their revision. These techniques proved their worth when the ‘treatment’ group (who used the new revision techniques) out-performed a ‘control’ group (who used more traditional techniques) in their A-level results!

The school is actively involving students as co-researchers such as in a development where teachers ask students to help evaluate new teaching approaches by recording their reactions in learning logs. Teachers’ research engagement has a positive effect on students in general and the headteacher concludes that ‘students benefit from enthusiastic teachers who engage in active dialogue with them.’

(Adapted from Making Research Make a Difference, FLARE, 2007)

Future challenges
Despite the tremendous potential of research to empower teachers’ thinking and practice, and enable meaningful integration of self-evaluation into the day-to-day work of school and classroom, the research engaged school remains relatively rare. The cause clearly needs championing. The support of big national players, such as the NFER, LGA, NCSL and the GTC for the ‘Investigating the Research Engaged School’ initiative is very much welcomed. However, for research engagement to become widespread and the norm in our schools, there will also need to be significantly increased political sponsorship at national and local level, together with less grudging advocacy from the world of educational research itself.

In his inaugural presidential address to the British Educational Research Association (BERA) John Furlong took issue with the unhelpful polarisation of academic research and practitioner research, arguing for a recognition of both. If research engagement is to involve more than the isolated activity of the occasional school enthusiast, then educational policy makers and school leaders need to be bolder about its benefits and more forthright about expectations.

The National Educational Research Forum (2001) recommended that:

  • all teachers should have an entitlement to research training in order to develop their role as critical users of research.
  • other stakeholders (eg parents) should be able to access the research skills they feel they need (eg skills in using a research evidence database)
  • all schools and colleges should have an entitlement, and perhaps a responsibility, to participate in a relevant research partnership for appropriate periods.

There are some significant challenges here for CPD and for teacher skill development. Evidence suggests that teachers can be reluctant to start ‘unlearning’ previous approaches or to experiment with new ideas and practices. Updating routine knowledge and skills can seem to make things worse before they get better. So, for teacher enquiry and research to flourish, there is a real need for CPD managers to foster a climate which encourages risk taking and gives assurance that teachers and pupils will gain more then they lose from the process.

The case for teacher enquiry and the benefits of research engagement for professional learning is overwhelmingly strong. It now remains for there to be the will at national and local level, in the higher education research community and among school leaders and staff, to make these gains both embedded and widespread.


  • DfES (2001) Learning and Teaching, A Strategy for Professional Development, HMSO.
  • Elliot, K and Sammons, P (2003) ‘From Data Rich to Information Rich’, Professional Development Today, Vol 7, Issue 1 Winter.
  • Handscomb G and MacBeath J (2003) The Research Engaged School on behalf of FLARE, Essex County Council.
  • MacBeath J and McGlynn A (2002) Self-Evaluation. What’s in it for Schools? Routledger/Falmer.
  • National Educational Research Forum (2001) Building Research Capacity. Sub-group Report chaired by Alan Dyson NERF.
  • Stenhouse L (1981) ‘What Counts as Research?’ British Journal of Educational Studies, Vol XXIX, No 2.